The Lady Elizabeth by Alison Weir


  It was pleasure enough just to sit in the garden and bask in the weak sunlight of approaching spring. Simple pleasures…they were the best; she had never appreciated them so much as now. The vivid hues of early flowers, the green buds on the trees, growing things pushing their way up through the dark soil. New life burgeoning, and with it a gleam of hope.

  A little face appeared above the wicket gate. The warder, a family man who was secretly sympathetic to the unfortunate princess in his custody, grinned.

  “It’s you, young imp!” he said. The little boy, about five years old, laughed, then resumed his scrutiny of the garden’s other occupant. Elizabeth ventured a smile.

  “He’s the Keeper of the Wardrobe’s boy,” the warder told her. “Aren’t you, Adam? And here’s his sister. Good day, Susanna.”

  A second chubby face, framed by blond curls, peered through the bars. It smiled, and Elizabeth caught a glimpse of gaps between milk teeth. She smiled back and waved. The child disappeared. Minutes later, she was back, and a pudgy hand grasping some newly picked flowers thrust itself through the gate.

  “May I?” Elizabeth asked the warder. At his nod, she moved swiftly across the grass and graciously accepted the offering.

  “What’s your name?” the boy asked.

  “Elizabeth,” she told him.

  “The Lady Elizabeth?” he asked in wonder.

  “You know who I am?” she inquired, startled.

  “You’re the poor lady who has been locked up,” he said. “My father and mother say you should be let to go free.”

  The warder smiled ruefully.

  “I wouldn’t go around saying that, young man,” he told the boy. He turned to Elizabeth. “Little pitchers have big ears.”

  “Indeed they do,” she agreed. Her heart felt lighter than it had done in weeks. It was cheering to know that some folk believed in her innocence and sympathized with her plight.

  “What are the common people saying about me?” she dared to ask the man.

  “Well—” He looked about him to check that no one was within earshot. “I shouldn’t tell you this, my lady, but I’ve heard many say it’s a shame that King Harry’s daughter is locked up in the Tower. Not one has said they believe you to be guilty. The people love you, and there’s a lot of murmuring against those who have put you here.”

  “I thank you,” whispered Elizabeth, tears springing to her eyes. “You have brought me much comfort.” Surely, the Queen would not contemplate flying in the face of popular opinion and putting her to death. No monarch would be so rash…

  The next day she sat out, the children were there again, two pairs of eyes peeping over the gate.

  “Lady!” piped up a little voice. “For you!”

  Susanna was thrusting her hand through the bars, holding out an object. It was a miniature bunch of keys. Elizabeth had to laugh.

  “I trust Sir John Gage has no objection to my receiving these.” She smiled at the amused warder and bent to pat the child’s head.

  “The child gave her keys?” Gage was furious.

  “Toy keys, sir,” the warder said, regretting he had ever mentioned the gift to the Lieutenant—who had, of course, felt duty-bound to report it to his superior.

  “And entirely harmless,” Bridges added.

  “This time, perhaps,” Gage muttered. “But these children could be used to smuggle messages to the Lady Elizabeth. My orders are to prevent her from communicating with anyone in case she plots further treason.”

  “Just keep an eye on the children,” Bridges said evenly to the warder.

  “And if they attempt to give her anything, you will answer for it to me!” the eagle-eyed Constable commanded.

  It was a pretty posy, made up of delicate spring flowers and clumsily tied with a ribbon. Young Adam bowed as he presented it to Elizabeth, who was about to curtsy in return when the warder snatched it from her.

  “Orders, madam,” he said, his manner far less friendly than hitherto. “You there!”

  His fellow guard, who was keeping watch on the other side of the garden wall, responded to his summons.

  “Yes?”

  “Take this boy to the Constable, and give him this.” He handed over the bouquet. Instantly, the children started wailing, and Elizabeth looked on horrified as the terrified Adam was borne off, struggling and protesting.

  “Do you enjoy tormenting innocent women and children?” she raged at the warders, her blood up. But they ignored her, leaving her shaking with fury. The one who had shown himself friendly just stood there impassively by the gate, staring straight ahead.

  Hauled before Sir John Gage, the boy stood speechless with fright.

  “Who gave you these flowers?” Gage barked.

  “N-no one, sir. We picked them,” Adam whispered.

  “Has anyone asked you to hide a secret message in them?”

  “No,” answered Adam, surprised.

  “I mean the prisoner Courtenay? Did he give you a message for the Lady Elizabeth?”

  “No, sir, I promise, sir.” The child looked totally bewildered.

  Sir John looked at him darkly.

  “You have been very naughty, giving that lady gifts. It is not allowed. I warn you, boy, that if you dare to speak to her again, you will be soundly whipped. Is that clear?”

  “Yes,” squeaked the cowering miscreant.

  The next day being fine, Elizabeth returned to the garden. Lying under a tree, engrossed in her book, she was interrupted by a movement at the gate and looked up. The warder was munching his noon-piece, a hunk of bread wrapped around a slab of cheese, and was bending down to pick up a flagon of ale.

  Adam stood a few paces beyond the gate.

  “Mistress, I am sorry, but I can bring you no more flowers now,” he called softly, then ran off, to her dismay. She did not see the children again.

  “Madam, you are summoned before the council,” the Lieutenant told her. “They await you in the lower chamber.”

  Elizabeth began to tremble. The long days of silence had led her to dare hope that nothing had been found against her. Now those hopes were shattered. The time had come for her to use her wits to save her skin. She had never felt more alone.

  The councillors were seated along an oak trestle table. Bishop Gardiner, the Lord Chancellor, was at the center. All stared at her unsmiling as she entered, head high, hands clasped demurely over her stomacher, and made her way to the chair that had been set for her facing her interrogators.

  Gardiner rustled his papers importantly and rested his hawk-like gaze on her.

  “My Lady Elizabeth, we are here to examine you regarding the talk that you had at Ashridge with Sir James Crofts, who asked you to remove to your house at Donnington. Why did he require this of you?”

  “My house at Donnington?” Elizabeth repeated, playing for time. “I have so many houses, my lord, I cannot call this one to mind, so sure it is I never went there.”

  “Sir James Crofts told you it was better fortified than Ashridge. You seemed to know of its existence then,” Gardiner retorted.

  Elizabeth pretended to consider. “Ah, yes, that house. You must forgive me, sirs, I have never been to it, and I had forgotten about Sir James advising me to go there.”

  The councillors exchanged exasperated glances.

  “Bring in Crofts,” Gardiner said wearily.

  Elizabeth stared as the prisoner was escorted into the chamber by Yeomen Warders. When last she had seen him, Sir James had been a handsome man, but now his fine features were scored with lines of anxiety and his hands were trembling. Prompted by his jailers, he recounted what had happened at Ashridge, omitting no detail. Elizabeth gathered her wits.

  “I only understood that you were concerned for my safety,” she protested. “And clearly I did not take your advice.” She turned to the councillors.

  “Gentlemen, nothing more passed between myself and this man. This is a waste of your time and mine, as I have little to tell you of him, or indeed of anyone
else who is imprisoned here for this cause.” She stood up.

  “My lords, do you mean to examine every common prisoner in order to trap me? Because if so, methinks you do me a great injury. If they have done evil and offended the Queen’s Majesty, then let them answer for it accordingly. But I beseech you, do not join me in this sort with such men. I am no traitor, as you should well know!”

  Gardiner took no notice.

  “So you do remember Sir James suggesting you move to Donnington?” he persisted.

  “I do now,” she agreed. “But what harm is there in that? Might I not, my lords, go to my own houses at all times?”

  Some councillors shifted uncomfortably. Others exchanged uneasy glances.

  “My Lord Bishop, we seem to be here on a wild goose chase,” Sussex said. “Remember, this lady is the heir to the throne…” The warning in his voice was unmistakable.

  The Earl of Arundel got up, walked around the table, and fell to his knees before a startled Elizabeth.

  “Madam, we are certainly very sorry that we have so troubled you about vain matters,” he told her.

  “My lords, you do sift me very narrowly,” she said, “but I feel well assured that you will not do more to me than is consistent with God’s will, and I pray that He will forgive you all.”

  Gardiner stared at her, marveling at how cleverly she had succeeded in turning the interrogation to her own advantage. The Queen, he knew, would not be pleased.

  “There is nothing further to be gained here,” he told his colleagues brusquely. “You may return to your lodgings, madam.”

  “My prison, you mean,” Elizabeth said spiritedly, elated at the way the interview had ended. Then she turned, chin held high, and swept past the bowing lords.

  “I had been expecting, madam, to hear that the Lady Elizabeth and Courtenay were to be put to death,” Renard said, his face grave.

  “There is, as yet, nothing that can be proved against them.” Mary’s voice betrayed her agitation.

  “Then I am sorry for it, and so is my master the Emperor,” he told her. “He knows, as does Your Majesty, that while those two traitors are alive, there will always be plots to raise them to the throne, and that it would be just to punish them, for it is publicly known that they are guilty and deserve death.”

  “But not publicly proved!” Mary interrupted.

  “Which is very regrettable, madam—for you, and for your kingdom.” Mary heard the ominous note in his voice.

  “You know how hard I have worked for this marriage,” Renard went on. “So you will understand that it grieves me sorely to tell you that the Emperor is of the opinion that, while the Lady Elizabeth lives, it will be very difficult to guarantee Prince Philip’s safety in this land. In the circumstances, therefore, I cannot recommend His Highness crossing to England until every necessary step has been taken to ensure that he is in no danger.”

  Faced with the unbearable prospect of her cherished dreams evaporating, Mary could not stop herself from bursting into tears. She was heaving with distress, mortifyingly aware that this was not the conduct that ambassadors expected from a sovereign Queen.

  “I would rather never been have born than that any harm should come to His Highness!” she sobbed. “I assure you, evidence will be found, and that those two will be tried before he comes.”

  “My master will be relieved to hear that,” Renard said coolly.

  The council members were debating, brows furrowed, tempers fraught.

  “But what is to be done with the Lady Elizabeth?” Winchester was saying. “Her guilt is by no means established, and there is no case against her.”

  “Aye,” chorused some voices, among them Sussex’s and Arundel’s.

  “Not so fast, my lords,” Gardiner interrupted. “We have the Queen’s security, and that of this realm, to consider, and in order to safeguard those things, the Lady Elizabeth should be sent to the block.”

  There was an uproar of disapproval.

  “She is the heir to the throne!”

  “She is innocent!”

  “There is no evidence against her!”

  “Look to the future,” Sussex urged. “She may yet be our queen. Her Majesty is in poor health, she is marrying late in life, and childbirth is perilous at the best of times. Think of what might happen if, the Lady Elizabeth having been executed, the Queen were to die? We should be engulfed in a civil war between rival claimants for the throne.”

  “The French would press the claim of their Dauphine, the Queen of Scots,” Arundel warned. “By force, if necessary, I’ll warrant. And what would that make us? A subject state of France and Scotland.”

  “Not to be borne!” Sussex cried, echoing a chorus of outrage. “But the only alternative would be Lady Jane Grey’s sisters, untried unknowns. No, I say free the Lady Elizabeth, for nothing has been proven against her, even after the most rigorous examinations of the rebels.”

  “You are fools, all of you,” Gardiner growled. “She has outwitted us all. I have no doubt she was up to the ears in the late rebellion, but she has cleverly covered all her traces. I say execute her.”

  Sir William Paget frowned.

  “My lord, you may not be aware that the Queen, who shares your opinion, has just consulted the chief judges of the land on this matter, and they told her that there was no evidence to justify a condemnation. No evidence, mark you, my lords, not just insufficient evidence. She should be set at liberty and restored to her former estate.”

  “No,” Gardiner said. “That would leave her free to plot treason again. If you must have her freed, at least consent to her being disinherited.”

  “And that will bring us back to the problem of the succession,” Paget argued.

  “The Queen may well bear a healthy son and heir,” Gardiner opined.

  “Yes, or she may die in childbed, which is more likely.”

  The other councillors murmured their agreement.

  “The best course,” Paget declared, “would be for the Lady Elizabeth to be released, and then married abroad to some friendly Catholic prince. That way we may satisfy the Queen and the Emperor, for it will assure a Catholic succession.”

  The lords nodded their agreement.

  “Aye, aye,” they chorused.

  “I will inform the Queen of our decision,” Gardiner said sourly. “But I doubt she will like it!”

  Elizabeth looked up from the stone bench in the garden to see a tall dark figure blotting out the sunlight. There was a young man standing on the short length of the wall-walk that led to the Garden Tower. A very handsome young man, and he was gazing down admiringly at her.

  “My Lady Elizabeth,” he said, making a courtly bow. “Lord Robert Dudley at your service. Your Highness has no doubt forgotten me. We once played childish games and shared lessons.”

  “I remember it well, Lord Robert.” Elizabeth smiled, delighted to see a friendly face and thrilled that it belonged to such a charming gallant. “I beat you at fencing!”

  Lord Robert grinned. “I blush to be reminded of it,” he said ruefully.

  “What are you doing up there?” she asked.

  “I am allowed up here sometimes for my recreation,” he told her. Again that devastating smile. It was hard to believe that the strutting boy had grown into the dark Adonis standing above her, silhouetted against the sky. He had moved and the sunlight was shining on his face, accentuating his debonair features and proud mien. He looked like a gypsy; she had always found dark, swarthy men more attractive than those insipid blond fellows like Courtenay, who looked like they had milk in their veins instead of blood. The Admiral had been dark too…

  “I am sorry for your plight, my lady,” he called down to her. “I too am in ward here. I understand how you must feel.”

  Of course, he had been here months, she realized. He had supported his father Northumberland in putting the Lady Jane on the throne, and he was now paying the price of his treason. She had heard he had been sentenced to death, as his father h
ad been. He must still be mourning the loss of that father, and wondering whether he too would be sent to the block.

  Yet his manner was cheerful. Cheerful and rather bold. She admired boldness in men. His spirit, as well as his looks, reminded her of the Admiral, whose manner had also been bold—overbold…the Admiral who now lay moldering headless in a grave in the chapel not many yards from here. She hoped that the handsome Lord Robert would not meet a similar fate. Maybe it was the engaging and bone-melting way he was smiling at her…She returned the bold smile, investing it with an unconscious seductiveness.

  Robert was thinking that he could like this lady very much indeed. She was not beautiful, to be sure, but there was about her an obvious allure, a suppressed dynamism. She was spirited and sexy, and she represented a challenge. He was a young man who relished challenges, and he sensed they would be evenly matched in that respect.

  She glanced at her warder, who was watching them and frowning.

  “I may not talk to you, my lord,” she said.

  “Of course, my lady, I understand that,” he said. “But if you ever have need of me, and it is within my power to help you, you have only to ask.” He swept another bow and moved out of sight.

  A rash promise, she thought, smiling, considering that he was a convicted traitor. And yet somehow it did not seem so impossible that he could fulfill it. There was about him an air of determination, of tenacity, of ambition. He had been here so long that there must be some hope of him escaping the ax. The Tower surely could not hold such a one forever.

  “I am sorry, Simon, but my council will by no means consent to the execution of the Lady Elizabeth,” Mary told Renard, hardly daring to look him in the eye. “Nothing has been proved against her, nor is it likely that any further evidence will come to light. And in view of what the traitor Wyatt said on the scaffold this morning, I dare not proceed further against her.”

  “Your Majesty is better informed than I am,” Renard said. “What did Wyatt say?”

  “He declared that neither Elizabeth nor Courtenay was privy to his rising,” Mary told him. “Most people would agree that a man facing divine judgment would not lie, but I am not of their number. I cannot believe that the rebels would have contacted my sister unless they were certain of her support.”

 
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